Trump Bucking Expectations of Fizzling Out

August 18th, 2015 by

The fact that real estate mogul Donald J. Trump joined the 2016 presidential race was hardly a surprise; the billionaire has been publicly entertaining a run at the White House, at least in principle (though not in practice), in each election cycle since 1988. What is surprising, however, is that Mr. Trump is still leading in the GOP polls, even after participating in the first televised debate among candidates. Trump leads a group of candidates from outside the political establishment that includes former CEO Carly Fiorina and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

It seems that even for all of his bombast and incendiary rhetoric, Trump is not fading from the limelight as many prognosticators originally thought.

According to the Experts . . .

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Nate Silver is perhaps the preeminent predictor of political contests anywhere in the world. Silver has established a reputation for spot-on forecasts after projecting the 2008 and 2012 presidential election results with almost eerie accuracy, nailing the outcome with a nearly exact prediction of which precincts the two candidates would win, and how many electoral votes they would accumulate. Between the two general elections, Silver correctly called 99 out of 100 states’ choice for president. His predictions about the U.S. Senate races over those two election cycles were also remarkably accurate, choosing the correct winner in 66 of 68 Senate races.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise—though to many it will—that Mr. Silver actually got his start in baseball as a statistician. Refining his predictive powers in the stat-heavy world of baseball sabermetrics, Silver eventually applied his knowledge to the political sphere, quickly becoming the leading authority on everything to do with elections.

So, what did Nate Silver think of Trump’s chances to make it this far?

Proven Right in Retrospect?

In an article on his blog website FiveThirtyEight.com last week, Silver laid out his reasoning on Trump’s apparent popularity. The conclusions he draws are mainly focused on the unreliability of polls this early in the election process. On this front, he is on solid footing: it’s true that the ultimate success of candidates who lead in early polling is nothing more than a coin flip. Just ask past would-be contenders from the 2012 race like Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain, all of whom led Mitt Romney in the Republican polls at some point in the 2012 primary, as shown below. (Michelle Bachman even beat Romney in the Iowa straw poll, for good measure.)

Yet, Silver’s opinion piece makes an effort to avoid certain realities, leaving off any expectations for the rest of the primary: Silver concedes that he is “fairly agnostic about what will happen to Trump’s polling in the near term,” instead focusing on the far safer catch-all that Trump simply won’t win the nomination. A world of context—and time, through the primary process—remains unaddressed in between.

How Different Is Trump, Really?

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Moreover, Silver attempts to marginalize Trump’s chances by comparing him to past candidates who relied on a narrow segment of the electorate for support, citing Newt Gingrich as one corollary. An obvious flaw in this logic is that a comparison to Gingrich is supposed to reveal the inviability of Trump’s chances, as if “possibly winning one or two early states” has no bearing on the election process; Silver conveniently ignores that Gingrich was an entrenched member of the political establishment, and was Speaker of the House—no position to sneeze at—between 1994 and 1998. It would say quite a bit about his strength as a candidate if Mr. Trump were able to match the results of a career politician.

It seems that the comparison to Newt Gingrich is misplaced if Silver’s intention is to cast Trump as a flash in the pan with no real chance of remaining in the race and influencing the eventual nominee chosen by the Republican Party. Even if his prediction that Trump will simply not become the nominee is correct (and, no matter how you slice it, the field of 16 other candidates is statistically more likely to produce the nominee), it should be an interesting ride until we get there.